A bonfire’s lit in the centre, a group of travellers sitting around it warming hands, when someone starts a story – there was once a man who fell in love with a tree. They wanted to get married but the man’s community didn’t approve. The man married a woman and bore kids with her. However, the tree’s love for the man never died and he created a bridge over the river with its roots. It was the tree’s gift to the man it loved.
We’re in Nongriat, a small village in the East Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. The story is folklore of course, but the love between man and trees is evident here. Nongriyat is a long and steep trek down (about 3,500 stairs) from Tyrna village which is about 12 kms from Cherrapunjee. The path on the way down is mostly cemented and lined with betelnut and bayleaf trees. Our guide for the trek – a local Khasi (the indigenous community of Meghalaya) from Tyrna, Wesley Majao – points out various trees, wild berries, butterflies and spiders to us. It’s like he can sense the forest and that I guess is true for every local in this area.
Bridging the Gap
After a three hour long trek we reach Nongriat, home to Jinkieng Nongriat – the double decker roots bridge, a living example of magic that man could create if he works in sync with nature. There’s a certain level of communication between humans and trees here. The locals give direction to the roots hanging from the Rubber tree, leading the way to the ground on the other side of the river. It’s like parents handholding their kids across the road; after a point the kids grow up and find their way. There’s a language that flows from human hands to these roots, reminding me of the tree-loving Na’vis in the film Avatar.
The idea of making such bridges occurred to the Khasi tribe more than one and a half centuries ago. The roots were guided through hollow canes to the opposite bank of the river. The roots are tended and weaved for years – about 15 to 20 – to form the bridge strong enough to carry human weight. The double decker bridge is 180 years old and the locals are now adding a third layer to it; the most beautiful part of this act being the idea to create something for the future generation.
Khasis follow a matrilineal society where the boy moves to the girl’s house/village after marriage and children take mother’s surname. The property too flows through the women. However, this doesn’t mean that the men are the under-privileged part of the society. They are equally important when it comes to taking care of the family and decision making and hence matrilineal and not matriarchal.
The Steel Age
No matter how romantic the idea of bridges made out of the roots of tree sounds, the process of building them is slow. And so there are steel bridges for quicker access which leave the original forest trail abandoned, much to the curiosity of the adventurous travellers.